Fragrances of bourbon, oak and vanilla waft up to your nose. The drink glows amber, with a delicate dewy sheen from the chill of ice from the cocktail shaker. A sip reveals rich oak and smokey flavours, faint sweetness and a soft burn, but it’s so smooth you can’t believe you’re drinking Bourbon. Small-batch barrel aging is the game changer for this cocktail, and once you’ve had one you’ll never go back to a regular Manhattan again. Get started now and you can warm up those cold January nights at home with a special glass of your very own creation.
While it is possible to find small barrels in specialty stores, I find they are easy to buy online, and much cheaper, too. I purchased one from Mexico and it arrived in less than a week to my door in Toronto. A quick trip to my local LCBO and I had everything I needed to make up a new batch.
A new barrel takes a bit of prep, you want to shake out any excess chips that might be inside, then fill it up with water and position over a towel or baking sheet, to test for water-tightness. Sometimes a new barrel needs a bit of water to swell the wood to make it perfectly water-tight, though I’ve never had a new one leak. Once you’ve tested and are sure there are no leaks, you can empty the water (a good time to test the Spigot as well). Your barrel will likely come with directions on how to prepare it for use, so follow your manufacturers’ directions.
Another item you’ll need is a funnel, as the top hole is not very large and would be quite hard to pour into without spilling. Insert a funnel into the top hole, and pour in the Bourbon, Vermouth and bitters. Plug the top and that’s about it—now you just have to wait about 6–8 weeks, giving the barrel a 1/4 turn every week or so. I like to test the batch at around six weeks and depending on the flavour, I’ll either continue aging, or bottle the mix and start up a new batch. A new barrel gives off the most flavour, so as you continue using it, you’ll find you need to keep the mix in the barrel for longer to achieve the same depth of flavour, until it is too weak. Then it’s time to get a new barrel (I find they easily last a couple of years).
There is something special about barrel aging your own cocktail. It’s fun to take notes each time you fill a new barrel, making subtle changes each time, until you perfect the drink exactly to your liking. For me, the Manhattan isn’t complete until it’s topped with bourbon soaked cherries (a world apart from Maraschino!) Your own personally crafted and aged Manhattans are a wonderful treat to share with friends, too.
Barrel Aged Manhattan
The smoothest, oaky-with-hints-of-vanilla-and-butterscotch Manhattan you can possibly imagine. There are great sources to buy your own barrels online, this recipe uses a 2 litre barrel.
- 750 ml Bourbon (1 bottle) Four Roses brand
- 375 ml Vermouth (1/2 bottle) Dolin brand
- 12 ml Angostura bitters
- 1 jar bourbon soaked cherries
- 1 2 litre oak barrel
If using a new barrel, prepare it according to the manufacturer's direction. Generally you need to soak it in water for a few hours to ensure a good seal. Drain the water and the barrel is ready for action!
Ensure barrel spout is closed. Place funnel into top hole of barrel. Add the Bourbon, Vermouth and bitters. Place the cork into the top of the barrel to seal. Allow 6–8 weeks for aging, giving the barrel a 1/4 turn each week.
Test a Manhattan: remove the cork from the top to allow the liquid to flow; get a cocktail shaker ready and fill straight from the barrel. Add ice, shake, and pour into cocktail glass. Test sample for depth of flavour and aroma. If desired, continue to age to bring out more oak flavour. If you are happy with the taste, pour into bottles. The barrel can now be used to make another batch—perhaps next time you'd like to adjust the bitters to suit your taste, or switch up the brands of Bourbon or Vermouth.
Bourbon soaked cherries add the perfect finishing touch when you serve up a glass. Enjoy!
Kevin Kane says
Thank you for posting this. I tried making a double batch of this recipe in the 2.5 liter oak barrel I bought on Amazon and it was very rough. Ugh. After some tinkering, discovered that the amount of bitters was way too high. Cut it by slightly more than half so that now I use 1.5 L of rye, a 750mL bottle of Dolin, and just 10mL of bitters. That makes a mighty smooth Manhattan – I’m now bottling this back into the 1.75 L bottles of Bulleit rye I buy to make these and give those to family and friends, with about a half liter left over for me from each batch!
You raise a good point. With a new barrel, it’s good to sample early and age for a shorter period of time. As the barrel ages it softens and you can leave the mix in for longer.
Michael G says
What barrels are you using that never leaked initially?
A key thing with any new barrel is to fill it with water to make the wood swell and eliminate leaks. The barrel may leak initially during this process, but the barrel should seal itself within 3 hours to a few days. You need to continually refill the barrel with water until the leaking stops. Also, once you’ve used a barrel, you can’t let it dry out as it may not seal again when rehydrated. You can fill the barrel 25-50% full with water when not in use to keep enough moisture in the wood to avoid it shrinking. Good luck with your barrel and hope that helps.
I see that the liquid volume doesn’t add up to 2 liters. Are you deliberately leaving open space, or is that just because you want to use just a 750 of bourbon?
Yes, it’s because I use a full 750ml of Bourbon to work with the recipe, I didn’t have any particular plan to fill the complete barrel volume. You probably only need to leave a little bit of airspace. Over time, some of the spirits do evaporate a tiny bit as well. “Angel’s share” as they say!